Emilie Conrad Da’Oud
The founder of the school “Continuum,” Emilie teaches a primal form of movement awareness, involving exploring the reverberations in awareness of the smallest movements, breaths andsounds. She has used the work to enable seriously disabled people to create previously unimagined kinds of movement.
Life on Land
If Martians were looking at us through some interstellar resonating device, I am sure they would marvel at how our planet has arranged us.
“Look, look,” they would say, “Their bodies are mostly water, and yet they move about the earth in this apparently solid way.”
“Just look at how each organ is maintaining its link with all of its undulating strands.”
“They are like fish out of water, but they carry it with them.”
“How amazing these humans are!”
I have worn a path searching for a spiritual link that was not offered in the world around me.
My spiritual struggle and my theories of movement are like the Caduceus — eternally intertwined, facing each other, falling into each other, then distancing for another embrace later on.
The question I asked myself when pushed to the walls of my own psyche, was in what unknown ways are we in rapport with our atmosphere? And if we were to experience this unknown “rapport”, would it matter?
The question rose and fell. It made me tired just to have it linger in my neural catacombs.
The question haunted me for years. From the tenements of New York, to the huts of Haiti, to the Spanish stucco of Los Angeles, the question grew more urgent.
In what ways do we commune with our biosphere? And how would we know?
A voice comes to us, a pressure on a shoulder, a message in a dream, a person in an airport — innocent moments glistening like eggs in a sea of fertility. An idle remark, a shadow from the eyes — an orchestration of creativity takes place in the magical moments of the unseen, between the lines.
Discovery takes place within a context of circumstances in which mysterious forces guide us, prod us, and invigorate our darkest moments.
The unknown is the invitation come enter come closer
Grandmother spent most of the day at the kitchen sink, peeling, washing, slicing what must have been food, but the plate before us was sadly populated with bleeding tomatoes, fainting cucumbers, and whispy potatoes slightly tinged from resting in an old pan. The meat was held over an open fire in a wire grate, so that it would dry out completely and become like leather. One could say the meat was tanned rather than cooked. Staring down at this sad plate, meat stiffened with rigor mortis, bloodless, it scratched my throat as it struggled to be swallowed. One could track its journey from mouth to colon easily, the meat marking its path with little agonies.
The matzo that was at all meals was a perpetual flight from Egypt — never to be forgotten. Relived daily, the dry wafer lay on my tongue waiting for some moisture to soften it, praying for saliva as if for rain, to drench the poor stiff thing with heavenly dew so that it could drop gracefully.
Life at Grandma’s house was destitute of any warmth or love or care — no laughing, no touching. Only sad little immigrant meals, Diasporic meals, wandering in space, no homeland for these plates, suspended over the earth, waiting for the messiah.
The lesson I received was that life was a harsh brick wall onto which one hurled oneself till one was dead.
On one side of our tiny apartment was a window staring blankly at a Brooklyn landscape of utter desolation. The grey asphalt of the street, the chain link fence of the playground, the dark tar, the grunge grey of the El trains that rattled by — trains ran every ten minutes — they would shake our windows and interrupt every phone call. All our activities were timed by the schedule of the West End El. Certain faces as they whizzed by became familiar to me. For a second we would make contact and then gone.
Grey, bulky figures burped out of the El train like chunks of undigested food. Scooped up every morning — spilled out every evening. They tumbled from the train and made their way toward their grey tenement cells, sitting before grey plates with grey leaky food, and the sky, oh yes, the sky — grey sky barely seen above the tenements, barely seen from the view of the street; the border lines of the grey asphalt met the relentless sky.
It was always night, even the sunniest July day seemed like night.
A blanket worn snugly over my heart, the grey covered any hope at all.
My child eyes took this in. My child eyes saw everything.
Our part of Brooklyn was called Gravesend. Well named. The Greenwood Cemetery was close by. Dead Dutch immigrants nestled in their final peace with great trees comforting them and guarded by ornate headstones with flying angels. The cemetery was my refuge. It went on for miles, and I would wander there for hours, sometimes sitting by the lake hearing the sighs of leaves, being very quiet. I don’t recall any visitors. The graves were so old — all the Dutch were gone from “Broeck Land” by then — leaving the dust of their bones to Italians and Jews with their salami smells, pizzerias and bars and grills.
Among all the muted grey, a pink hope blasted out from the fog. Port Alba Pizzeria neoned through the streets. The “greys” clutched their glasses, singing old Italian songs, as their eyes got redder, lips softened, and wet drops oozed from their tongues. I, small, watched men and women huddled around the dark wooden bar, a coffin turned upside down — I smelled disinfectant mixed with beer, saw sawdust rippling the floor; a blue and pink juke box swinging its lights, a trapped hep cat wailing Harry James and Sammy Kaye. Slow dancing in the night. Hard-ons pressing tight skirts. Words whispering huskily, “I’m gonna be a cop.” “I’m gonna get married, get a fridge, have a coupla kids.”
Dark skinned kids from Italy’s boot, dark skinned kids with kinky Sicilian hair, born to drive trucks to New Jersey, born to stir endless sauces for spaghetti, born to live with smoky blue mirrored fake fireplaces, naked bulbs swinging over sinks, blood-brown mohair living rooms, windows fogged with stifling steam heat — tropical forest inside, freezing cold outside.
The bright pink of the Port Alba Pizzeria shone like a spark of heaven coming to meet this puzzled earth.
I think back to this time as a kind of initiation. The kind that can only take place in childhood. Wrapped in innocence, with no defenses, the universe can converse with you, shed its tears, whisper its lament, and only the child can hear.
My mother tells of how, bringing me home newborn from the hospital, I choked and turned blue. On the verge of death, a friend of hers put her hand down my throat and pulled out a huge wad of mucus.
Later on, I choked on the darkness of my childhood — off to hospitals with exotic somatic responses that were diagnosed as disease.
Looking back, I see these illnesses as sorrows of the soul.
The struggle for breath became the hallmark of my early life. Imprisoned by breath, I stuttered and gasped. My stuttering clogged my chest, causing words to stand on top of each other like the rush hour scenes I knew so well.
Words colliding in my throat, clinging to each other in lumpy embraces. My throat became a BMT door in which words would tumble out like giant centipedes all tangled inside each other — great lumps of words rushing to get out before the doors closed. Rushing to make it to the exit. Pushing and shoving each other with odd matings. Words struggled to exist on the slim threads of breath that I poorly provided.
Better to keep my mouth shut.
I knew even at a tender age that my breathing problem was a form of incarceration. I felt imprisoned by childhood. I was doomed to serve my term as a “small person” amid the purgatory of the screaming adults around me. Trapped, I stuttered and gasped.
Daily my ribs contracted and my throat become a tiny hole; the more I struggled the less breath there was. This led to chronic sighing. Like an elm tree withering in the dust, I sighed and sighed, my words punctuated with gasps which finally escaped from my pinched throat with puffs of sadness. Sometimes the sighing would be over right away, sometimes it would just go on and on.
I measured my sanity by the amount of sighs that percussed the air. I had bad days and I had less bad days. Humid days were the worst. The oppressive steam of New York heat in the summer was a bronchial challenge. I learned to get up at five AM before the cooked streets and tarry rivers came to life with their gurgling vapors. I learned to rise early, snatching clean breaths before my daily gasping would begin, before my lungs got clogged with tenement dust.
I knew that my perpetual hyperventilation and my feeling of incarceration were the same. My breath was as trapped as I was.
I knew I was catatonic way down where coffins lay at the bottom of the ocean, where El trains ran through tombstones.
I knew where faces jarred in glass cages stared at me through my own glass cage.
I knew the waste of my grandmother’s life as her gnarled hands shaped the pyramids of Egypt as she prayed over the Friday night candles.
I knew I was banished, wandering in the desert.
I recall the child sitting at the window, and I can feel the child’s despair, knowing that the world was much more than this.
This could not be why dinosaurs roamed and stars burst.
This could not be why oceans sprayed and forests clustered.
The movement of water on land is represented by the symbol of the snake.
We learn to live on land,
But it is in our aquatic home that all life emerges.
An octopus stirs, a snake moves and hatches its eggs on land. Far away from the primordial ooze it struggles out of its muddy home and stretches itself past rocks and crevices — its belly shapes the dirt with elegant markings — markings of ocean on land. The swirl is remembered in my fingertips as I write this page.
I had an intuitive sense of how I wanted movement to feel. I never saw it in a human but I recognized it in the octopus.
Watching those undulating fluorescent ripples, I recognized the quality of what I was looking for. The iridescent fluttering of life stretched and undulated, rippled and curved. As the complexity of this shiny wet dance caught me, I felt that movement, and I knew.
I stood in a pool of recognition, and I knew.
Below the sea, before light, swim prehistoric forms, ancestors — ancestors gleaming with iridescent quivers — creatures living so far down — so far, far, I stand, they swim, but we are the same.
I entered the darkened pool, up to my knees at first, then hips, fingertips, chest, shoulders, neck, ears, until all there was only silent water.
iridescent memories beneath the water, resting.
I wade into the water.
Wade, but not like Virginia Woolf, to die.
I drown, but not to die.
I drown, to answer the call.
But not to die.
How do I know about breathing?
How does the snake know to move its belly?
A struggling prisoner, I bang the bars with my spoon.
Is anybody there?
When I was fifteen I was rushed off to have my appendix ripped from my belly. Igor, the mad doctor, did such a ghastly job, I needed to be sewn up again three times. My belly looked like I had been run over by a tractor, and a gaping hole looked at me in my bathroom mirror. Not only did I struggle with layers of scar tissue, but I had massive adhesions as well.
For twenty years I was greeted with the same screaming pain in my appendectomy scar. It would constantly gnaw at my right side — insatiable for my attention. The pain was so severe that I could not touch my own abdomen. I felt the thick gristle of scar tissue strangling my organs and swallowing my intestines. Pain led to numbing, and I would deaden myself from shoulders to knees — to keep it at a low throttle. But it was always there. No matter how well I muted myself I could feel its constant gnarling. All of my pain converged in my scar, a convention of memories thronged on my right side. I had deadened my emotions enough to create a generalized state of agony that was a souvenir of my childhood, with all the long dark hallways and no light at the end.
From my shoulders to my knees was a zone of protection.
My stomach muscles, cut in surgery, lay immobilized within the ice cube of myself. Winter spread its snowy stillness until I was completely frozen: my eyeballs, my toes, my heart, nothing left but icy vigilance. I gave the “impression” of being alive. I managed to maintain a certain acceptable coordination, to compensate so well that no one could tell I was an ice cube.
Fully petrified, I hung like a stalactite from the ceiling of a cave in a perpetual state of dropping — no movement could be completed.
1967 Los Angeles.
My gasping and sighing kept increasing all through the years, until my chest felt like a frozen fortress.
I had to teach myself to breathe.
I rode my breath, sliding and falling over snowy peaks and crevices; a Saint Bernard was bringing warm whiskey to the frozen traveler.
My life was being saved.
I breathed, and small rivers of warmth brought blood to the surface. At first the pain would rise up to meet the breath and scream even harder — shouting down the breath–petrified tears circling a fire. The pain rose to clutch the breath, to kill it — no movement here.
“Stop at once,” I say.
The battle rose, sometimes to monstrous proportions.
A war between ice and heat — life and death.
It felt like two vultures were fighting over an almost dead carcass.
A voice inside said, “Do not give this any value. Keep going, keep going.”
I lay there as pain tried to swallow breath.
I lay there as life crashed.
Then, ice cracked — a trickle of feeling.
The Saint Bernard struggled toward the stranger, pushing through the snow.
Rivulets of sensation were recorded by my nerve fibers, and brought me to “feel” the heated life inside me.
It was difficult for me to feel pleasure. I could only tolerate it for microseconds before the pain would rise to demolish it. Microseconds, as I stayed the course, grew into minutes. An achievement was to have a “good” feeling for more than ten seconds.
Over a period of time the waltz of the vultures subsided, and little by little the ice age ended, and as rosy blood coursed through my heated cave I was able to accept more breath.
I traveled on my breath through centuries of despair. Not only mine, but ancestral despair, a mantle passed from generation to generation, a mantle of suffering, passed like a bowl of peas. Not only my scar, but all of it lay there inside me — so many generations, shaping the course of my life.
My overwhelming sadness was bound, not only by my own misery, but to centuries of ghettos and isolation. The foot of the Jew, never permitted to touch this earth — somehow always lifted, always wandering. Desert after desert, always wandering. Those women stared from my eyes, those hands formed pyramids of fingers before Menorahs. “Boruch Atou Adonai” echoed in my throat — voices, hundreds of voices.
Black clad ghosts fled as heat from the sun warmed the rocks of the cave; lungs opened, and air breathed against rock.
As I taught myself to breathe, I concentrated on exhales — expiring, the dissolving of form.
I would sink my body with every exhale, taking the burden off my lungs — my body would take on the whole expression of breathing — sinking in as completely as I could with exhaling, and receiving the breath as best I could with inhaling.
Inspiration — the taking on of form.
It made sense to let my whole body take on the movement of breathing.
The first music is breath. Music is movement. The basis of all music is inhaling and exhaling.
The octopus and snake shaped my movements. They were my teachers.
Lying on my back, bringing a wave motion to my belly — getting my diaphragm to move, trying to become more fluid, was completely different when I incorporated breath.
I explored breath as a musician would experiment with music.
The movement became the outcome of the breath.
If my breath was dynamic and heated, a wave motion would reflect that: it would be larger and quicker — if my breath were more subtle, the wave was more internal, softer, finer.
I could tell, as I slowly began to sense more distinctly, that if I changed the textures of my breath, I could bring about deeper sensation. It was as if the shifting of breath magnified occurrences that usually lay beneath the threshold of my awareness. The stimulation of dramatically shifting my breath brought me closer to feeling internal movements — sensations that were organismic — not about anything else.
The more I recognized sensation, the deeper inside myself I could be. Sensation was about itself — a textured palette of many qualities, not imbued with any content.
The feelings were like an umbilical cord connecting me to the world of the sperm and the egg, the world of love itself.
But the inside of me maintained a stony silence, until one day, a miracle, something moved from inside!
Something moved that wasn’t filled with pain.
I didn’t even know that a person could move from the inside.
I continued with my breath, my attention watchful — not knowing what to look for, I was simply alert.
Gradually, slowly, incrementally, more movement occurred internally. Further and further I could go, feeling myself as a wave joining a multiplicity of waves — multidirectional — some, perhaps tiny, barely a ripple, some stronger, more determined.
As I softened, I was filled with whispers of sensations which were subtle and permeating.
I had to teach myself to not run away from myself and what I was feeling.
Over a period of time my experience of sensation went through a drastic change. My sensation vocabulary had been rudimentary: sexual, menstrual, pain. Sensation was something I had tried to avoid. Now I made myself stay.
Attentive breathing, day after day, I could feel the snow turn to water.
One day I felt wave motions moving inside my spine, my face, my fingers.
There was no inside, no outside, no up or down, no “body” only wave motions, many kinds — short waves — long waves — dancing waves.
I wept with deliverance. I was home.
I dwelled in the marvel of this world.
Breath — a thread hovering between life and death.
I am joined with all creatures in breath.
Breath pneuma spirit
Shiva, the god of dance, stirs
Inhale, the Creator meets exhale, the Destroyer
The dancer turns one face then the other until life and death embrace
A snakeskin hangs from a cross, molting, shedding
The great dance begins.
Breath is the movement of wind on water — it becomes a beckoning of our origins. As amphibians that developed legs to pursue life on land we return to our watery beginnings to resurrect.
As breath moves more freely, a softening occurs, what once was a barrier now becomes a threshold and life can go on. As breath brings waves of movement into soft tissue and to the bones of my sternum, I feel love entering me, I feel as delivered as a new babe lying hummed in the wrappings of a cosmic love. The waves enter my pelvis, deep into the subterranean chambers where prehistoric anemones twirl. I permit myself to welcome the undulating caresses of love. It spreads into my legs, my arms, my face. Tenement dust is kissed from my eyelids, as I begin the “cosmic drowning”, the relinquishing to love.
Like secret agents from a distant star, we are born out of water, shaped by its liquid love, protected, adored, we bring our oceanic heaven to earth.
Water shapes our bones, our organs, our brains, and finally nestles inside our cells waiting — waiting for the call of earth.
Waiting for the first burst of air.
Dolphins and whales swim calmly as the aquatic human awaits destiny.
The moment comes, throbs increase as the space ship struggles to land, slipping, sliding, screaming. The pulsing amniotic softens the arrival.
Cut from the placenta — the ship has landed!
Breath enters the tiny human cargo a cry the song begins
The juke box twirls
Harry James lifts his trumpet
The whales sing out
This wet being will soon learn to live on land.
Its fluid memory will be erased, the membrane between lives barely felt. A dorsal fin shudders as our oceanic past is remembered in our internal movements. These ancients who arrived before light — they swim quietly, waiting.
Our organs undulate with rhythms of the first algae. Our tissue sways like kelp, furling and unfurling — eternal sway — dark ocean sway — deep in the middle of the dark, where photosynthesis never occurs.
The kelp of our tissues remembers the ancient ones.
On land now, remembering the dark, dark water where light never is, the silent ones move.
Blood memories like oceans of dark
Blood moving the Red Sea parting
the Red Sea coursing round the Cape of Good Hope
the Red Sea of blood moving through vessels and tunnels
The membrane between lives is barely felt, except in dreams, perhaps.
If we lived on Mars or Jupiter, the atmosphere of those planets would shape us very differently.
We breathe the way we do because we are on this planet, and not on any other. Our lungs develop in such a way because of this earth and not another — we crawl, we stand, we move with confidence. Our bodies are stabilized by invisible fields that keep us from floating off.
Born into another atmosphere with the same DNA, we would breathe differently, our organs would orchestrate differently, and our neuromuscular development would interface with the requirements of that planet.
In short, our bodies behave the way they do because we are here.
On Earth, all existence begins in water. Whether we speak of the amniotic and the world of sperm and egg, or we speak of the primordial soup — in either case, on this planet, water and life are one.
It is our guide and our prayer, this atmospheric substance that is the movement of love.
As we lie in our watery cradle the pulsations and signals of life creating life start their sculpture. Buds appear, the liquid pulsations bring forth a shape, the cues and chemical signals pulse and dance as this shape continues to grow. This liquid being has entered a new atmosphere, and as it hesitates, still wet with its memory, terrestrial urgings begin. The atmosphere of the earth calls forth its own chemical responses, and this extraordinary water enters the amphibian stage. The movement of water to earth.
We lie in our grass hut, or brick house, we lie on leaves, on cotton, on wool, or straw, and we become.
We are lifted, we are touched, liquid eyes meet earth eyes, we make contact. We have arrived.
The water, undulating with memories, begins grasping, and the tiniest pulsations of muscles begin. We have arrived.
As we take on the callings of our new environment, our grasps become firmer, our fluid movements become more stable, and we become more adapted to flexing, grasping, shoving, reaching, falling away.
An alphabet of movements spill forth. Gushings of muscles learning the laws of earth.
This amphibious stage continues, and only the intrinsic movements maintain their oceanic memory. The organs undulate as they have always done, unaware of the hardening of muscle and the demands of new reflexes — organs pulsate in rhythms more ancient than we; our connective tissue dances like sea anemone.
Unaware of any change in existence, the interior life remains true to its watery origin. The amphibious human continues to stabilize itself in its new environment, testing out new strengths and capacities as it wiggles its way into its new world. Each movement brings about an identity of body. Liquid pulsations become random thrashings, little reflexes awkwardly begin humming, a bud becomes a leg. As each limb adjusts itself to its new atmosphere — a body image begins to emerge.
A sense of “body” comes with experience. The identifications that accumulate around “body” come from use over a period of time.
All of our identities around “bodies”, what they are, what they do, come from use and experience, and outside of that framework we go no further.
The “shock of arrival” creates a kind of amnesia — a blank. Like mountains scored with sea etchings, so we are etched — strangers in a strange land.
Perhaps, like reptiles that peered out from the primordial mud and squirmed on land to find a new frontier for hatching their eggs, we are like them, following signals of which we have no idea.
For me the message of God can be felt in the movement of water. The fluids in our cells are the liquid presence of our spiritual birthright. The ocean — our blood — the water inside the planet — amniotic and spinal fluid — are all the same.
All fluid activities are in resonance. They mutualize and inform each other. The fluid inside this biosphere called earth and the fluids of our bodies are in constant rapport. Inexorably mutualizing in ways that we have barely discovered.
The recapitulation of our biosphere by the embryo is the greatest spiritual message of all. Take the sage off the mountain and put him back in utero, have him feel his skin fall away and the undulating memories of his umbilical tie to his planet.
These undulations, cosmic perturbations, are carried by the movement of water in which electrical impulses impregnate the soft waves with an immanence of what can be possible.
An ocean of probability for planet, for human, play out this theatre of fecundity as messages merge and reverberate, perhaps even having a separate purpose from the hardened shell of the biped stalking the savannas, questing for fire.
Perhaps human beings are engaged in a process that is “other” than our muscular meanderings on earth. Is it possible that we are participating in something vaster than our limited brains can realize? Perhaps the mitochondria are running us? Perhaps it, or they, are participating in a cosmic drama that goes far beyond our hairy bodies and smart drugs.
Amnesia sets in as earth greets us.
The shock of arrival wipes out all traces of our watery birth. We now take in the shapes around us, trees, rocks, grass. Textures call us to be touched, walked on, eaten, smelled. We are called by the gurgling of brooks and the roaring of mountains, we are called, and we never look back.
Eyes stare straight ahead with wonder and delight.
Fragrances fill the nostrils and the aromatic earth seduces us toward her. Forever clasped, we stand tall, our frog legs firmed up now, ready to walk, to kneel, to climb, to run, to kick, ready for earth and all its delicious temptations.
Like a cosmic joke our tendrils become fingers and we forget.
Ah yes. I see it now. The hardening of our bodies deadens us to our home.
We are no longer wet.
It took me a long time of deciphering to realize that the amniotic, the oceanic, is the movement of love.
Not emotional love but an encompassing atmosphere of love
A love that has its own destiny — perhaps using humans as its messengers, this love is trying to land on earth.
Water is the substance for all life forms on this earth.
Love is the substance in which all life form is expressed.
Oceanic memories continue among all humans who have landed. The pulsing waves of ancestral amphibians is recorded in every undulation of an organ, in every sweep of tissue, in every course of blood.
What we call “body” is not “matter” but movement. The body is a profound orchestration of many qualities and textures of movement, interpenetrating tones of fertile play, waiting to be incubated. What I see as body is the urging of creative flux, waves of fertility. The cosmic play that we enter this atmosphere with still goes on at an intrinsic level — we are mostly not aware of the world we carry.
It is there in this cosmic soup disguised as organs and cartilage and tissue that the universe is moving in its creative flux like a giant egg waiting to be fertilized. The amniotic matrix moves with the same undulations that started this cosmic swirl that we call earth in the first place.
Our intrinsic world is our cosmic connection, it is our legacy of love and wonder — it is where God plays at midnight, it is the big bang, the splitting of atoms, and the message of Jesus.
This is a new piece, chapter of a book in progress, published here for the first time.